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Monday, August 29, 2011

Metaphors and Language Learning

A metaphorical work of art, La trahison des images,
by
René Magritte
As my début post on the Easy Languages blog, I thought I'd kick things off with a theoretical musing that's been bubbling away at the back of my mind for some time. It's not only fascinating but it also sheds some light on the elusive, frustrating, but endlessly beguiling enigma that is our capacity for language - and how we learn it.


The creation of this post has been spurred by a link sent to me by my colleague Kate (a fellow contributer to this blog) to the twitter page PreschoolGems. This feed shares snippets of quotes from preschool children, at times hilarious, at times precociously poetic. While not immediately relevant to the process of language learning, I found amidst its overwhelmingly candid creativity a link to a blog post on Wordpress from earlier this year discussing loosely the idea of metaphor, and also a more in-depth analysis (from a neurostructural perspective) in the NY Times last year. For those who (understandably) aren't going to trouble themselves with reams of dull academic ramblings, I'll highlight some key nuggets. Ongoing studies in neurology - the study of brains - coupled with more linguistically-driven insights - are revealing the increasingly central role of metaphor in not only language but also human behaviour.

For many of you, the word "metaphor" will no doubt conjure up memories of bygone English lessons, dryly reciting the differences between them and similes, and robotically identifying them in hackneyed chunks of famous writing. But in the evolving understanding of human biology, it's becoming evident that we should update that stuffy elitism and recognise metaphor as a marvellously inventive and fundamental cognitive talent. Fencing off metaphor as the quirky practice of poets and novelists is not only misinformed but also entirely misrepresentative. Our ability to express and relate complex ideas through conceptual "shortcuts" is hard-wired into our language system: think about prepositions, for example! If you're "in a mood", there is no physical "mood" for you to climb inside; if you're "under stress" the same applies - stress does not float above us nor weigh on our shoulders. But we understand these readily without batting an eyelid. Even something as basic as tense: saying "I'm going to eat a sandwich" bears no intention of conveying motion, but in English we take it for granted that "go", in such a context, denotes a kind of close future that isn't quite as strong as the auxiliary "will". What's more, there's neurological evidence to suggest that when we are casually uttering a phrase such as "I just can't grasp the idea..." or "I'm over it...", it activates the same spatial orientation regions in our listener's brain as when they process physical space. We think metaphorically.

This quote from a comment on the Wordpress blog was what made me start writing this post:
We get so used to the architecture of our native grammar that it becomes invisible to greater and lesser degrees; learning other languages (I used to know a few quite well) throws a light on the structures and idioms we take for granted. - "Stan"

There's definitely an element of truth to it, too. It's funny how when you start learning a new language you'll spot an odd construction which is either entirely logical (from a metaphorical point of view) or, revealingly, identical to a construction in your native tongue. The first time I learnt "Je vais + infinitive" in French as a "close future", my knee-jerk reaction was "How strange, using a verb of motion to express tense..." until I realised it's the same in English. French goes one further and uses the construction "venir de" to express something along the lines of "having just done..." - and analagous "close past" using the same idea of motion. English and French share a couple more motion constructions, such as "J'allais faire..." ("I was going to do...") or even "Va chercher..." ("Go look..."). And it's not just French and English; every language, to some degree, possesses this kind of 'recycling' of lexical material to create new meanings, all thanks to metaphor. And this is because it's not a characteristic of language alone but rather a trait shared by humans. As the NY Times link discusses above, we have metaphorical associations relating to all sorts of phenomena, processed in the exact same areas of the brain as their literal counterparts (physical nausea vs. moral disgust, for example). It's efficient and economical usage of cerebral real-estate: without metaphor, we wouldn't be able to communicate effectively. We'd be rooted down in concrete language, which is not only dull but ultimately inexpressive.

This is all a whimsical tangent, and lovely to think that we are all born instinctively creative, but in fear of straying far from the point, I'll reiterate. It is often through learning a foreign language that we are reminded of our capacity for metaphor; in fact, to learn another language is to open your mind to new metaphors, to new thinking. It encourages open-mindedness simply because many metaphors, particularly the ones that have grown with the language and have become conventionalised, obscure, and embedded in idiom, are indecipherable without immersing yourself in that culture. Textbooks can't teach you that final, unique thrill of acquiring, understanding, and using a truly native turn of phrase.

So if you really want to learn a foreign language - get under its skin, to use a metaphor - you've got to go to the country and live it. Breathe it. Get lost in it. Rather romantically, that's what Easy Languages is all about - the incomparable immersive aspect of language learning. Why not check out our hundreds of available programmes in a wide range of destinations, and learn a new language (or brush up on an old one!) in the most effective way possible - abroad!

Photos: (1) Wikimedia.org